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The Hunt for the Real Autumn

Each year around this time, without fail, New York City is abuzz with the residents’ autumnal alacrity, having had had quite enough of the sweaty summer season. Enthusiastic praise is given first to the colors, then to the smells, eventually the tastes, and finally to the sensation of a crisp breeze wafting through city streets. With warm smiles anticipating the romance of a fairy tale, friends look at me with shining eyes and ask, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

Immediately, suspicion wells up within me. “Where are you from?” I ask, already knowing the answer to be one of three American states.

“California,” the majority of them say, though a few hail from Texas or Tennessee.

“That figures,” I mutter, sometimes under my breath, sometimes loud enough to be certain I’ve been heard. My response is always followed with the question: What is that supposed to mean?

It means this: I grew up in New England. What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? It means that generally, when it comes to autumn anywhere else, I’m emphatically not impressed. The mediocre color splotches available in Central Park plummet far below the standards of “fall foliage;” I’ve never even seen a pumpkin in the concrete jungle; and on the rare and coincidental occasion that I’ve caught a whiff of anything remotely resembling freshly-baked-pie-goodness, it has rapidly been followed by the smell of two-week-old-baked-goodness-tossed-in-the-garbage-pail, which – in case this part wasn’t clear – spoils the mood entirely.

Oh, yes, I love fall. But expecting me to love it anywhere except New England (with the possible exception of the real England) is like expecting a second-grader to like an uninspired apple over the sugary bliss of the candy kind; the very thought embodies futility.

Fortunately, New England isn’t far from New York City, and you need not burrow deeply into the northernmost parts of the region to experience some of that fairy-tale-fall that has warmed my heart for so many years. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you are up for a far-north frolicking or just a day-long getaway, here are a few spots to visit to make your autumnal adventures far more magical than any other place America has to offer. (With apologies to the rest of America.)

Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT – Perched high above the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, originally known as Seven Sisters, was the residence of actor William Gillette, famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. One only has to spend a few seconds on the property to understand why Gillette fell in love with it. From the garden, the view stretches for miles, trees splashed in every color of autumn clustered close together and running along both sides of the Connecticut River all the way to the horizon. For a bird’s-eye view of the fall season, there are few options superior and none quite as convenient. An added bonus is the mysterious nature of a castle fashioned with secret passages, spy-holes, and even its own personal underground railway. Pack a picnic lunch to eat amidst the leaves fallen on the grounds below the castle, or make a night of it camping at the foot of the mountain.

Northeast Kingdom, VT – The furthest of the fun times, the scenic drive alone merits mention, let alone all the quaint comforts of cozy New England offered in the Northeast Kingdom.Unlike some of the more densely populated parts of southern New England, the Northeast Kingdom boasts full-length hayrides through the grassy plains of the least commercialized farmlands in the region, foliage paddles along on the Clyde River, harvest fairs, hiking through the crisp forests of the Burke Mountains, and the New England autumn signature Great Vermont Corn Maze. To satisfy your taste buds, stop off for some quality unfiltered ale samplings at the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville or hit up the Cow Palace in Derby for their famous elk burgers. (For those overly-zealous carnivores, you can even “meet the meat” in the backyard, posing for pictures with someone’s future lunch if the elk are unsuspecting enough to approach you. No sudden movements, people.) Best of all, at least for earth-conscious New Yorkers, it doesn’t get greener than the Northeast Kingdom, and thanks to a geotourism program being developed in conjunction with National Geographic, your presence there will actually help to sustain the region’s natural environment.

Hudson Highland/Fjord, Cold Spring, NY– Okay. Technically, it’s not New England, but lest my regional snobbery paint me to be too exclusive for my own good, let it be known that upstate New York offers most of the same nostalgic delicacies as the rest of New England. The Hudson Highland and Hudson Fjord provide an all-encompassing experience of autumn’s natural beauty, only a couple of hours north of the suffocating faux-fall of New York City. Offering views from far above the Hudson River as well as the unique experience of a glacier-carved valley between the highland mountains, few sites in the northeast have such a robust selection of scenery. After a sojourn across the Bear Mountain Bridge, visit some of the town’s antique structures, go kayaking along the river (don’t forget your wetsuit), picnic at Little Stony Point State Park, or, if you’ve had quite enough of nature, visit Main Street for the best small-town shopping along the Hudson.

Natural Bridge State Park, North Adams, MA – Home to the only naturally formed white marble “bridge” in North America, the park offers, amidst a kaleidoscope of colors, a 13,000 year old bedrock marble bridge formed by eons of glacial movements. Visit Hudson’s Cave, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in An American Notebook, or just watch the Hudson Brook bubble through the park’s naturally formed gorge. For nearby nature adventures in North Adams, visit the stunning Berkshire Mountain trails, two other state parks, and vibrant local waterfalls. If town tourism is your fancy, make sure to check out Mass MoCA for a healthy dose of contemporary visual and performing arts.

Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT – What would autumn be without apples? Whether you pick your own or buy from the fresh piles inside, Lyman Orchards boasts some of the finest fall fruit in the country. Running the ninth-oldest family-operated business in American, the Lymans remain dedicated to preserving their land and homegrown produce for generations to come. After lunch on the beautiful patio deck overlooking the orchards, get lost in the yellow glow of the unique sunflower maze, stay traditional with the classic corn maze out front, or tromp through the pumpkin patch and find yourself the perfect piece for jack-o-lanterns, rich pumpkin bread, sugary pie, and roasted seeds. Don’t forget your golf clubs!

For a list of the best places to see foliage throughout the season, check out Yankee Foliage’s peak map.

No matter what your New England autumn adventure looks like, be assured that when you return to your humble home, you will scoff heartily at the question, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

“Oh, yes,” you’ll say. “I do love the fall. And I guess this is pretty nice, too.”